The Carbonari and 1820

For a short time, it looked as if 1820 might become a decisive year in the history of Italy.  Revolutionaries in Naples seemed to have reached their goal – the unpopular and repressive King Ferdinand was scared and ready to make concessions that would enable him to keep his crown, when in July six years after his restoration dissatisfaction had boiled over into action.   Thirty members of a secret society called the Carbonari, led by a rebellious General, Guglielmo Pepe, had forced Ferdinand to grant a constitution.  This society, organised and hierarchical, used secret ritual, passwords and documents to bind their members together, and to keep their aims hidden.  Accounts, like this one, really seem to dwell on the complex and occult nature of their rituals.

The story of Italian unification often presented is that the Carbonari represented a middle and aristocratic strand of the population who wanted to expell Kings, Dukes and Popes from the peninsula and replace their rule with a untied Italian Republic.   However, as historian RJ Rath points out the evidence seems to present a more complicated picture about their aims:

It appears that there were [sic] always enough vagueness in the political objectives of the organization as a whole and sufficient allowance for freedom of thought within such a program as existed to make it possible for good liberals – and Carbonarism was a “liberal movement” – to come to different conclusions in regard to the ideal form of government to establish in Italy

It is not really possible therefore to pin down a single set of aims of the Carbonari, which were different in different parts of the country. It seemed that some groups did contain radical republicans, whilst others, as we can see from the events of 1820-21, wanted only to persuade their local monarch or duke to rule in accordance with a written constitution.  Many other Carbonari enjoyed the social aspects of their secret club, and used it as a place to network, or to raise money for charity – a bit like the Round Table in Britain today.

In fact these divided aims meant that although the Carbonari had large numbers of members, they did not really represent a political force, or even an effective force for change, as the failure of the revolts of 1820-21 and 1831 show.

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